Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Real Cost of Food

I am a news junkie; I can’t seem to get enough of the local or national news. Often I listen to it on the radio, watch it on TV, read the newspaper and look at different sites on-line. There are no two ways about it; I am addicted to the news. This is an odd addiction because often what I hear, read and see on the news makes me upset and that very thing happened this week.
Just about every news outlet I tuned into had a story about the rising cost of food. It seems due to drought, the cost of food is projected to rise by 3.5%. Now like many of you, I do not have any extra money to spend so any increase in my cost of living is unwelcome. However, one thing I was unhappy about was that this increase was not put into perspective.
As Americans we spend less of our annual income on food than anywhere else in the world. I found a publication from Washington State University stating that we spend only 6.8% of our annual income on food. Compare that with other countries such as the Ukraine (they have been in the news here lately); Ukrainians spend over 40% of their annual income on food. I don’t know exactly what 3.5% of 6.8% is but I know it isn’t much.
It seems funny to me that fuel cost can go up 10 to 20 % easily in a couple of months, yet we rarely see any news outlet report on that. I would guess that most of my monthly utility bills have all increased by over 3.5% in the past year. Was the increase unwarranted or excessive? I am not sure but the point is that there does not seem to be any reporting over these price increases. Why is that?
Well, for one thing we have done such a good job of producing the most affordable, reliable and wholesome food supply that we have spoiled our consumers. Think about it we are used to walking into just about any grocery store and making a choice between anyone of a dozen different choices for any grocery item. Choices like conventional or organic, name brand or store brand, you name it we have a choice. Often the price differential is not even that great, we are way too used to have affordable, abundant food at our finger tips.
Here is a news flash, even with a 3.5% increase in food costs; we still have the most affordable food supply anywhere in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I am concerned. I recognize that there are many who struggle to pay for their food and we must pay attention to them. Most of us can easily absorb a 3.5% increase even if it means one less movie night each year, but for those who can’t we should provide them some help.
I also fear that supply problems and the corresponding price increases caused by droughts will cause some damage to our demand for our products. First and foremost would be the commodity nearest and dearest to my heart, beef. Because of our historically low cow numbers and short supply of beef, the cost of beef in the grocery store is climbing and I fear that in the long term it will scare consumers away. This will not be because the majority cannot afford beef; it will be because there are more affordable options.
While it is frustrating that a small increase in the price of food can bring headlines in the news, I can see some positive in all of this. First, it does focus the general public on how important our food supply is. I think many of us do not fully realize this because we have never been faced with a shortage of food. The general public just assumes that the grocery store shelves will be full and the prices will be low. The production of food is one of the most important and the most overlooked part of our national security.
Finally, it gives those of us in agriculture the opportunity to educate our consumers about what we do and why it matter to them. I would bet that most of us are far more aware of the importance of irrigation waters in California than we were just a couple of months ago. It should help with the decisions in times of drought between green lawns, swimming pools and crops. We need to have an educated consumer because whether we know it or not we are all big fans of the safe, abundant and affordable food supply this great nation produces.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Banquets, FFA and the Future

I love a good banquet. Well, that revelation should not be earth shaking to anyone who knows me. Yes, I do like to eat and often more than I should, but this observation is not about food at all. Last night I attended the Rock Creek High School FFA Banquet. I guess I need to add a little bit of a disclaimer here.  My son is a member of the Rock Creek FFA so I am a little biased, but this spring the same scenario will play out in schools all across Kansas and the United States.
I feel like many times I write about things that are threatening the future of agriculture, obstacles in our way and people who work to erode our way of life. The FFA Banquet I attended last night was certainly the opposite of that. I saw hope for the future of agriculture in the enthusiasm of the members. I got the feeling that they see unlimited potential in a career in agriculture and that is refreshing.
I was in awe of the way the FFA members in my son’s chapter presented themselves. They spoke with confidence and presented themselves with a presence at the podium we don’t often see in young adults outside of FFA. As the awards for their Supervised Agricultural Experience or SAE were presented I was impressed with the amount of work each had done to earn the award. This was all in addition to the official dress. In an era when almost every day is casual Friday, it is nice to see the formal look of official FFA dress.
Of course the cornerstone to any great FFA program is the Advisor. Again I am sure I am a little biased but I am very grateful for everything Mr. Holiday does. With my background in Extension and 4-H work I like to think I have a better understanding than most about what it is like to work with youth on a daily basis and I am in awe of his dedication to his job. The late nights and early mornings he takes on are not just part of the job; they are a choice he makes because he believes in what he does. I also know that the hard work and dedication he displays on a daily basis is typical of many FFA Advisors I know. It is truly a job that those of us in agriculture should hold in the highest regard.
My wish is that those at the highest levels of education could attend FFA Banquets or better yet spend time in the classrooms or at FFA events. Many times the vocational agriculture program is one of the first cuts during hard times. Based on my experience and observations I would argue that vocational agriculture should be a priority and it should be second only to the core curriculum. Sure FFA members gain knowledge about agriculture but they also gain far more.
The FFA members I know learn how to speak in public with confidence, to conduct themselves with an air of professionalism and learn to lead in a multitude of different ways. FFA members learn how to set themselves apart, that is why many of our local, state and even national leaders are FFA alumni. If there ever was a flagship program of how education should operate and the kinds of results it should produce, vocational agriculture is it.
We need make sure vocational agriculture is valued both at the school district level and at the state and national levels. As budgets tighten and tough decisions are made, vocational agriculture should never be one of the items on the list to be cut, it is far too valuable.  In many ways the future of agriculture depends on the future of vocational agriculture in our schools.
I keep thinking back to the NCAA advertisement that will be shown during the basketball tournament this time of the year. It shows many athletes and they all talk about how they are going to go pro in something other than the sport they are playing. FFA is different and we need to keep this in mind as we look at our FFA program. A large number of the kids in your FFA program will go “pro” in a field related to agriculture and that is a good thing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bad Burrito, the TV Series

These days success is all about diversifying, so I have decided to take up another enterprise. I have decided to write my own TV series. After watching some of the stuff on TV I decided there can’t be too much to it and it doesn’t have to have much for content. All you have to do is have an idea and the farther it is from real life, all that much better. Shoot, if the networks don’t pick up your idea, you can finance it yourself, put it out on the inter-net and promote it to death.
So, without further ado, here is my idea.  The show will be called “Bad Burritos” and it will be a tale of corporate greed. The show will be set in the corporate office for a chain of restaurants. The chain will be called Chip-Ole’ and they will specialize in quasi Tex-Mex. The first episode will set the series and will start out in the board room as the CEO and the rest of the management team are discussing their declining sales.
The management team acknowledges that the world of Tex-Mex is very crowded. They need something that will set them apart and bring their restaurants more attention. Suddenly, the CEO jumps up from his chair like a bolt of lightning; he has a brilliant idea that will make their sales go up without the need to improve their food. They will position themselves as the eating place with a “social conscience”.
The second in command chimes in,” let’s proclaim our food healthier and more wholesome because we only use anti-biotic, hormone free meat and somehow make everyone believe it is much better for the environment. We will divert the public’s attention from our food and blame the farmers and ranchers for producing a dangerous product. We will start a crusade to change the way farmers and ranchers do their jobs.”
Suddenly a junior vice president at the end of the mahogany table speaks up, “Do you really think the public will go for us singling out hardworking farmers and ranchers? My uncle farms and he is one of the most consciences people I know. I don’t think he would do anything to hurt us.”
“Good point”, says the CEO, “We will target only the larger farms and ranches and say we support only small family farms. We will make the farms and ranches that chose to incorporate seem like they only want to make money no matter what. The public doesn’t like big corporations and we will play on their fear.”
“But boss aren’t we a large corporation? Won’t we be cutting our own throats? My uncle’s farm is a corporation but it is just him and my two cousins, are we going to say they are evil?” says the same junior vice president very meekly.
“I think we should put out misleading information, twist a few unpublished studies to say what we want them too and hire a couple of “experts” to back up our claims.” Says the marketing director, “Maybe we can dress our CEO up in a cardigan sweater and make the public think he is just the guy next door. We will make our campaign glitzy and glamorous. We will use humor and cartoons, but remember to keep it short, it’s not like we have facts to back us up. Keep it short and entertaining, they won’t know what hit them.”
The same junior vice president offers one last thought, “But it seems at best that we are slanting the truth to support our claims and really we are making things up just to sell our food. We are tearing down good hardworking people just to sell more burritos. How are we going to sleep at night?”
“Well, young man, I intend to sleep very well on my silk sheets at my weekend house in Miami.” Sneers the CEO, “But you are starting to get the idea. We don’t have to tell the truth, we are just selling burritos not the truth. Oh sure if we do actually change the way food is raised, we might add to a growing world hunger problem but who cares, we will be rich!”
In the back of the room, Annie (the management team hired Annie, the owner of a local diner, to cater their board meetings) is secretly taping the conversations and will release it to the internet.  When those tapes hit the airways the management team of Chip-Ole’ must launch a public relations campaign to reclaim their “good name” while changing public opinion.
I must say, I think my idea for a TV show would be very intriguing. We can have a humorous look at the world of corporate greed, where CEOs say anything to make a buck. I know, it is farfetched and probably will never be picked up. After all what does a farmer know about running a corporate restaurant chain?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Calving Standard Time

We are neck deep into calving season right now and it is one of my favorite times of the year, going out each morning and looking for new calves is kind of like Christmas and Easter all rolled into one. Looking for the calves is just like hunting for Easter eggs and finding out what they look like is like opening Christmas presents. My only hope is that tagging them doesn’t end up like the Fourth of July with fireworks.
Calving season does have its own little quirks like not jinxing yourself by washing your chore clothes. If you do happen to wash them, you will be guaranteed to have some malady or catastrophe befall you and the next bovine you are working with. Most often those maladies and catastrophes involve yellow sticky calf poop or amniotic fluid. That is why I try to never wash mine during calving season, I prefer to stand my coveralls up in the corner and whistle to them to come to me each morning.
However, the quirkiest of all of the quirks during calving season is a little phenomenon I like to call calving standard time. I would guess that all of my fellow cattlemen know what I am talking about. It is that period of time during calving season that you lose all sense of what hour of the day or even what day of the week it is. Scheduling anything during this time of the year is speculative at best and downright fraudulent most of the time.
Each morning I try to walk out the door as soon as it is light enough to see. What time of the day is this? Well, it is a moving target most days between the days getting longer and the difference between cloudy and clear skies. I must also admit that there are those mornings that it is just a little harder to get going and the start might be delayed by another cup of coffee. Those mornings are few and far between because you usually pay for that delay somewhere down the line.
Once you are off and going the agenda for the day is often a blank piece of paper. Who knows when chores will be done and you will arrive back in the yard. Some days chores are done around 10:00 and you are free to accomplish one of the many things on the ever growing list of jobs that need to get done. I often find myself saying, “I’ll get it done after chores some morning.” I think that is just my code for, “I will get it done after calving season.” Then there are those mornings when you pull back into the barnyard look at the clock on the pickup and ask, “Is that the right time, is it really noon?”
The days you finish morning chores just in time to start evening chores are when you truly know that you have fallen into the Bermuda triangle known as calving standard time. Those are the days when you fall into the easy chair in the evening and realize that you accomplished nothing more than tending to the cow maternity ward that day. Often those days give you a rewarding feeling, moving from one new calf right to the next one. I like those days, but in the back of your mind you know that there are other days that will not be so great.
Most often those not-so-great days involve bad weather. Nothing can put the whammy on time like snow, mud, wind and cold, especially when they hit at the same time. Often those days are spent like a MASH triage, running from one disaster to the next. Those are the days when you fall into the easy chair and wonder why you didn’t pick an easier occupation like crash test dummy. Either way, after a couple of those days, you start to lose track of the day of the week. Do we go to church tomorrow? I think we just went two days ago, but that would have been Tuesday. Right?
Calving standard time has physical side effects too. Often I develop a rumpled, disheveled look complete with longer-than-usual hair and a beard. I have been asked do you grow the beard for protection from the elements. Nope, I grow the beard because I forgot to shave after the second day of calving season and I will shave after chores are done. I like to think of it as the wild rugged look, but my family tells me I look like I am living in a refrigerator box under an overpass.
Just like all of the other seasons, calving standard time will end and become a distant memory. I will once again be able to schedule doctor’s appointments, agree to meeting dates and times and maybe start to whittle down the list of things I am going to do when chores are done. Well, that is until we start the period known as daylight planting time.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Dangerous Burritos

I have never hidden my disdain or dislike for Chipotle. Personally I have a hard time turning the other cheek when another entity wants to tear down what you do for a living just to build their business up. You might remember that Chipotle is the restaurant chain promoting “food with integrity” (their words not mine). In the past they have launched slick cartoon ads aimed at changing the way farmers raise your food (again, their words, not mine).
Chipotle seems particularly to take aim at what they consider large, industrial agriculture. However, in doing so they also make the farmers and ranchers look like mindless, money-grubbing shills for the big corporations. Now they have introduced a “comedy” TV show called “Farmed and Dangerous” that follows along that same theme.
The premise of the show is that a big corporation develops a new cattle feed made purely from petroleum. It does have one disturbing side effect causing cattle to spontaneously explode. The big, evil corporation hides this troubling development until the handsome, guy-next-door farmer exposes them on the internet.
The CEO of Chipotle has stated during interviews promoting the show that they hope it will bring awareness to the public about how their food is raised. Chipotle’s end goal is to force farmers and ranchers to change how food is raised. They would like to do away with modern swine and poultry production systems and the use of antibiotics. Chipotle is also concerned about corporate farms and large agriculture related firms like Monsanto.
They pride themselves for creating a fresher, healthier burrito. Oh and along the way they want to champion a better, kinder, friendlier way of producing our food. Let’s not mince words here. If you believe that Chipotle is going on this marketing campaign because they want to improve the world and make you healthier, I have a bridge in New York to sell you. They are creating all of this to sell more burritos, open more restaurants and make themselves richer. I have no problem with being successful and wealthy, but I do if it means destroying people (especially the ones who feed you) to get there.
I find it more than a little ironic that a large corporate chain of restaurants would have a problem with corporate farms. They champion family farms, but by being a large chain aren’t they doing the same thing to the local café’? But I digress, since when has a CEO of a restaurant known more about producing food and agriculture than those of us who do it every day?
While this idealist notion of small family farms with Ma and Pa and ten cows helps them sell their food, it does nothing for feeding a growing world population. Our modern corporate farms (most of which are family farms) have grown and expanded over the years because of an increase in technology. Name another industry that has not gotten larger and more automated in the past fifty years.
Please don’t think Chipotle is championing this cause because they care about you. I would guess that they are much closer to the corporate money grubbers than the clean cut do-gooders. I will not ask you to boycott their establishments; I will let you make up your own mind on this matter. All I can do is to tell you what I intend to do myself.
I will never, ever darken the doorway of a Chipotle restaurant. I will not spend my money in an establishment that does not respect what I do or my friends who have spent an entire lifetime of hard work developing new technology that allows us to grow more food, with less land, with less inputs and with less impact of the environment around us.
I will, however, thank Chipotle for bringing this issue to the forefront and allowing us to have this discussion. I look forward to reassuring everyone who I come in contact with that our food supply is safe, nutritious and wholesome. I appreciate the opportunity Chipotle has given me to debunk the rumors, misinformation and outright lies they continue to push forward.
 I love talking about what I do and I am proud of the way I grow your food, just ask me. I invite anyone to sit down and discuss how their food is grown over lunch. I assure you it will not be at Chipotle, but I can suggest a great local café’ close to my house. I go there because they appreciate farmers.